Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, said, "They're flamboyant. They're Britney Spears. They're beer-chugging and limbo contests." He paused, took a sip of wine, then continued. "We're Julie Andrews."

Whitley's "they" were the cruise lines. His "we" were tour operators. Shortly before Whitley offered this comparison, I had written -- not for the first time -- that I thought it odd that tour operators appeared to be losing the battle for travel agent mind-share to the cruise industry, whose aggregate revenue was less than half that of the tour industry. Whitley had asked to meet over lunch to give me his perspective on the topic.

He didn't disagree that the organized cruise industry, through CLIA, had an effective marketing effort aimed at travel agents. "But do we want to run a trade show like CLIA? I doubt it."

He said that a big attraction at CLIA's industry show, Cruise3sixty, "is the ship inspections. We don't have that luxury. We don't have the luxury of an organization with 22,000 travel agent members. We can't give away tours in contests like others can give away a seat on an airplane or a hotel room or a cruise cabin.

"But am I happy with our relationship with travel agents? Yes. We have great repeat business from travel agents."

Whitley disagreed with my supposition that promoting tours as a product was an apples-to-apples comparison to promoting cruises as a product. There is likely more difference, he said, between any two tour experiences than there is between any two cruises, because tour products are more diversified.

"At a cruise show, the product is a cruise ... a commodity. But the tour product, well, there's escorted and there's FIT. It's the Galapagos. It's a walking tour of Ireland. It's heli-skiing. It's riverboat cruising. You can't really do one marketing program that covers white-water rafting, vineyard tours and dive packages.

"And there are really three types of tour operators," he continued. "There are the large regional and national operators, about 350 of them, who sell through travel agents. They are USTOA's focus. There's the mom-and-pops, about 2,000 of them, selling primarily in their hometown. And there are the ones focused on their ethnic communities, packagers for the most part. On the other hand, there are only about 20 cruise lines, only three major corporations really, and of those, two are dominant."

While pointing out the complexities in the tour segment and how it can't be fairly compared to cruises, Whitley nonetheless found it hard to resist making comparisons about the advantages of selling tours over cruises.

"Terry Dale and I get along great," he said of CLIA's president and CEO. "I don't want to do a PR battle, one against the other. But there are some advantages for travel agents who sell tours. On a tour, the travel agent makes commissions on the types of things that would be shore excursions on a cruise. Air, too, of course. But there's enough business for both of us, especially with baby boomers."

When I again brought up the topic of marketing tours more aggressively to agents, Whitley replied that given the challenges posed by the complexities and diversification of tour products, they had simply chosen a different marketing path from CLIA's.

"We've budgeted $200,000 for marketing. We decided to spend it on PR, aimed at consumers. Our marketing focus is to tell consumers to take a packaged vacation and to buy it from a travel agent. With the weakness of the dollar, they can save 40% over doing it themselves, and they'll know up front how much the vacation will cost."

I accepted that the diversity of the tour industry was a disadvantage, but nothing Whitley said had really convinced me that tours could not be promoted more aggressively in a cohesive and coherent way by his organization, similar to CLIA's effort. When I heard the budget number of $200,000, though, I had to ask: Can't a $28 billion industry segment come up with more than that to promote itself?

"Consider that our margins are about 1% to 3%," Whitley said.

Ahhhh. Say no more, Bob. Given that the cruise industry's operating margin averages better than 19%, the fact that the tour industry has twice the sales volume of cruising is suddenly irrelevant. In terms of available cash for marketing, the cruise lines begin with a pile of cash that's approximately five times larger. The two efforts are not apples-to-apples; they're the cruise ship's apple to the tour industry's bunch of grapes.

I sat down to that lunch wondering why an industry segment appeared to be dwarfed in a marketing battle against a segment half its size. As dessert arrived, I finally understood.


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